Skip to main content

Wending your way through an art museum, you come to a gallery with two wooden chairs in the center. A small table separates them. White tape on the floor delimits a large square around the furniture.

Near the entrance to that space, a placard on an easel reads “Humanity Present.” A few people stand or sit cross-legged around the margins, waiting, watching, conversing.

One of the two chairs is empty. A middle-aged white woman, plainly clothed, sits in the other, hands folded in her lap. She doesn’t move. She doesn’t speak. With head bowed and eyes closed, she’s so still, she could almost be a mannequin.

Now a young, black-haired woman, possibly Hispanic, enters the square to seat herself in the empty chair. Sensing her presence, the older woman raises her head and opens her eyes. She welcomes the other woman with her gaze. She doesn’t stare. She doesn’t smile. She’s simply and radically there, meeting the newcomer with full, open presence.

After five minutes or so, the young woman abruptly leaves. Her face registers no emotion.

A moment later, a slender, dignified African American man in an orange suit jacket takes the empty chair. At first, he seems uneasy in the woman’s presence. His body fidgets. His eyes look everywhere but at her. But gradually he settles in. His expression turns peaceful, absorbed.

Fifteen minutes pass before he rises and strides off. Near the gallery doorway, he stops and leans his forehead against the wall, almost as if he were praying.

You look again at the woman in the chair. Once again, she has bowed her head and closed her eyes, waiting for someone to join her.

“What’s this all about?” you wonder. “Is this all she does?”

Maybe you think it’s a little nuts.

A spindly, bearded white man sits down opposite the woman. By age, he could almost be her grandson. He’s heavily tattooed, with scraggly hair and an earring. His face is sallow, his eyes sunken in their sockets.

She gazes at this man the same way she has gazed at the others, gently, intently. After a few minutes, tears are dribbling down the young man’s face. He doesn’t wipe them away.

In the hush, the woman’s tears, too, begin to flow.

The two of them are surrounded by onlookers. Yet inside the square they’re alone. Alone, and together.

You pull out a handkerchief and discreetly blow your nose.

The tattooed man leans in. He and the woman remain motionless, but the silent space between them seems to surge with energy.

You don’t know why, but you don’t want the encounter between these two people to end. And it doesn’t … for more than an hour. Then the man finds his feet, quickly bows, and departs.

As he goes, a child rolls up in a wheelchair, to take a turn.

* * *

Here’s what I want you to know:

That plain, middle-aged woman who waits in one chair is me.

Would you come sit in the other?

* * *

This isn’t a rhetorical question. I really want to know.

Back in 2010, the performance artist Marina Abramović offered a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art titled, “The Artist is Present.” Over a period of three months, she sat for eight hours a day without food, drink, or breaks. She met the gaze of 1,000 strangers. Each of those people was allowed to occupy the chair opposite her as long as they wanted. It was never empty. Museum visitors waited in line to sit there, some for five hours or more.

From the minute I learned about Abramović’s show, I felt inspired to do something similar someday, for my own reasons, here in my own town. Not as a show, not as an act, not as an experiment, but as an expression of trust, care, and hope—in other words, as spiritual practice.

The time has now come for me to do just that. (There. I’ve just said it aloud.)

I don’t yet know exactly when, or where, or for how long I’ll do it—the planning is just underway. But I feel the all-important “why” in my bones: I want to help close the divides between us. To meet the “other” as a flower, and to mirror back the beauty of the flowering. To gift strangers with attention and compassion—the knowledge that they are seen, and valued—without them having to earn it. To create a meeting ground where so little matters, perhaps everything in the world can matter differently.

Doing this together, we don’t have to understand what we’re getting from it. We don’t have to take anything away from it at all.

On the street, in the store, on the sidewalk, in the pub, even in our homes, such a silent encounter as I’m proposing (in the spirit of Marina Abramović) might seem absurd.

And that, my friend, is sad.

It doesn’t have to be so.

* * *

I’ll confess: The idea of trying this in my South Dakota town is rather unnerving. All kinds of doubts afflict me: Do I really have time for this? What venue would actually agree to host it? I’m a nobody—would anybody actually show up and sit down? If they do show up, how might I be affected by such intense engagement?

I’ve no answers to these questions. But that’s okay. They’re really just details. What matters most is the trying.

* * *

So, my friend, I ask you again:

If I sit down in one chair, would you join me, sitting in the other?


Photo by Simone Garritano on Unsplash
Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

Leave a Reply